The biggest maker of the pill is developing the world's first birth control patch for women, a device that will deliver contraceptives through the skin for a week.
Johnson & Johnson said Tuesday it plans to seek government approval for the product early next year. A review by the Food and Drug Administration could take a year or more.
The patch contains the same ingredients as the pill and works just as well, according to New Brunswick, N.J.-based J&J. The company said it doesn't know yet how much it will cost.
The adhesive patch, which J&J calls Evra, is the size of a half-dollar and can be worn on an arm -- or for those who want to keep it hidden, the abdomen or buttocks.
"For women who have difficulty remembering to take birth control pills, this is an excellent method," said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
While the pill can cause nausea and vomiting in some women, the patch can reduce those side effects because the drugs don't pass through the digestive system.
Also, by delivering a steady flow of drugs over an extended period of time, the patches can avoid the "peak and valley" effect of pills or injections, reducing side effects.
It would be the newest type of birth control to hit the U.S. market since the injectible drug Depo-Provera in 1993. U.S. corporations have generally been reluctant to market new types of birth control because of fears of lawsuits that have plagued previous products such as the Dalkon Shield and Norplant, which has been linked to ovarian cysts and has proved difficult for doctors to remove.
J&J, which controls 39 percent of the U.S. oral contraceptives market, is in the final stages of testing the patch on several hundred women.
"Our patients said they were very satisfied with it," said Sally Ward, clinical services director of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and South Dakota, which took part in testing earlier this year. About 25 women used the patch for six months.
One drawback is that the patch must adhere to the skin, which could be difficult for women who sweat a lot or take frequent showers.
Eileen Harris, 32, of New York, who has taken birth control pills for five years, said she wasn't interested. "Why would I want to walk around with a patch all day, if I could take a pill in the morning and be done with it?" she said.
Patches are already used to deliver a variety of other drugs, from anti-smoking treatments to estrogen for post-menopausal women.
Birth control pills are considered nearly 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy when taken correctly. However, studies have shown up to 20 percent of teens using birth control pills forget to take them at least twice a month, said Dr. Elof Johansson, vice president of the Population Council, a New York-based reproductive health research group.
"The big advantage with the patch is it will increase compliance," said Johansson, whose group is lso developing a contraceptive patch. That research, being done with Irish drug maker Elan Corp., is in early stages of human testing.
About 10.4 million U.S. women currently use the pill. It is by far the most common form of birth control after sterilization.
Written By Phil Galewitz
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